Environmental Benefits of Reducing Dairy

When I began writing this article, I initially thought about calling it “Environmental Benefits of Eliminating Dairy.” But I know for many people (myself included!) it’s really hard to stop eating all dairy completely.

So in the nature of our Tamborasi theme of small changes making a difference, I decided it would be better to write about the environmental benefits of reducing dairy consumption. (I want to note that this article will focus on the environmental impact of dairy, not the ethical or health implications.)

If you don’t ditch dairy completely, reducing your dairy intake still helps to combat climate change. How, you might ask? We’ll dive into the numbers. 

The Average Person Consumes 643 Pounds of Dairy in a Year.

This is 2017 data from the World Wildlife Fund, published Dec. 2019. They state that this number is up 14% from 20 years ago, and the majority of dairy consumed consists of cheese.

Much of the Dairy Footprint Comes from Food and Water

It takes 144 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of milk. Most of this (over 93%) is used to grow feed for the dairy cattle. Additionally, 100 pounds of feed is needed per day for each U.S. dairy cow (WWF).

And making one pound of butter requires 21 pounds of milk (NRDC). Additionally, the feed for the dairy cows requires quite a bit of pesticides and fertilizers, a major source of global warming pollution (NRDC).

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Dairy Cows Emit Methane

While cows raised for beef contribute to the highest methane production at 71% of animal related methane, dairy cows contributed to 24% due to gasses from their digestive tract along with methane released from their manure (Penn State Extension).

Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, and has a 25% greater negative impact compared to CO2 over a 100 year period (EPA).

If everyone cuts down on dairy by even a small amount, less dairy cows will be needed leading to less methane emissions overall, as seen in the study below.

Halving Your Dairy Intake Leads to Reduced Greenhouse Emissions

In the 2014 study titled Food choices, health and environment: Effects of cutting Europe’s meat and dairy intake (Global Environmental Change), researchers found that “halving the consumption of meat, dairy products and eggs in the European Union would achieve a 40% reduction in nitrogen emissions, 25–40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and 23% per capita less use of cropland for food production.”

Along with health benefits (lower cardiovascular mortality), the study also noted that less use of cropland for agriculture (and therefore less nitrogen pollution) would result in a significant improvement in both air and water quality.

Less Dairy Farming is Better for the Land 

Switching to more plant-based dairy options will also improve farming land during food production. This results in “reduced land use by 76% (including 19% reduced land use for crop growth, as additional crops are needed to feed cattle), [further] reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 49% and reducing damage to the water supply” (Food Medic, 2018).

Try These Dairy Alternatives

While plant-based options do still require water and fossil fuels to produce, the amount is vastly less compared to cow’s milk

As a dairy-lover myself, I’m pretty sure I’ve tried every plant-based dairy alternative, from “milks” to “cheeses.” I was shocked at how similar oat milk tastes compared to regular milk, especially in lattes. Soy milk is also a great option in lattes and along with oat milk, it requires significantly less water to produce than almond milk.

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Since cheese is the most consumed dairy product (and the hardest to give up), you can try out some of these tasty cheese alternatives that I definitely recommend: Daiya, Miyokos, Field Roast Chao, and any cashew cheese (yum!).

It’s amazing how far the plant-based cheese companies have come, and I do think they’ll keep getting better as the technology continues to improve.

Switching to vegan pizzas like Amy’s and Daiya pizzas has been the easiest way for me to cut back on my dairy consumption, since I already jumped on the plant-based milk train a few years ago, with all of the great milk-alternatives out there.

If you’re also looking to swap out your dairy butter for plant-based butter, I hands-down recommend Earth Balance organic buttery spread, which tastes exactly like butter but with less of a carbon footprint.

As you can see, dairy isn’t the most innocent of foods for the environment. If you’re able to reduce your dairy intake just a few days per week, this will definitely add up each year.

It might seem challenging to reduce your dairy at first, but if you’re concerned about the environment, do consider trying all of the tasty alternatives out there. 


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